Archive for April, 2012

Toibin’s Ireland

Dear friends and readers,

It’s about time I wrote in praise of Colm Toibin, of his biographical and critical essays, of his novels, his biographical fiction, his travel books. I can’t think of any writer as originally thoughtful, perceptive, humane, quietly iconoclastic, informative, absorbing, who reads authors as interesting or simply writes as well so consistently. When I see his name on a list of contributors to any periodical I subscribe to, I go to him first and he doesn’t disappoint. This morning I was lifted out of bleak loneliness (Coping) into a consoled companionableness by his review of Julian Barnes’s The Sense of an Ending (for New York Review of Books LIX, 8 (May 10, 2012)9-11 where he quoted Larkin in ways that resonated with my feelings, validated them.

Toibin an Irish journalist who comes from precisely the area he has set his story in; he is himself gay or homosexual and he has written out of this perspective more directly at times. While he does write about overt politics, there is much travel writing and three of the novels at least center on this business of the compromises and concessions you must make if you want to stay in a family circle at all, or the difficulties of being in a family setting. He is interested in colonialists and hybrid-identities and literature: Anglo-Irish, Anglo-Indian, French-African, Irish-American. Catholic by faith, liberal-leftist in outlook, sympathetic to revolutionary movements, he’s a gifted writer: delicately powerful stories. He now lives in Dublin.

I can’t list all the essays by him I’ve read, over the years especially on Henry James, Oscar Wilde; his arguments stay with me and I use them in my essays and postings and they become part of my thinking. I’ve not read his short stories, but I have read The Master (a fictional biography of Henry James, see my blog on Kaplan’s biography), The South, Blackwater Lightship, Brooklyn. I wish I had read more, and now that my reading time at night is limited I shall have to turn to him during the day.

The South

I remember parts of the book vividly still. Reading The South made me choose to read his The Master and teach Blackwater Lightship and most recently (as my Christmas treat) Brooklyn.

The heroine in The South leaves cold husband and unsympathetic son to make a new life for herself in the south with a wholly unconventional painter who had fought on the left side against Franco; he had been tortured, is now under surveillance and the way he leaves is to retreat to the mountains to live very meagrely (since he has little money and no way of getting any kind of middle class income-producing job). She loves the escape, release, life with him, and herself begins painting. Much on Spanish landscape and customs of a leisured pattern of days. Eventually she gets pregnant by him and years pass and they do improve their (what some would say) squalid living arrangements. Alas, the authorities decide to come after the man again, he is again trying to do some good in the political world. He is again imprisoned, perhaps tortured (I’m not sure on this latter detail), at any rate deeply distraught once more. He has retired from society as a reaction to what he saw in the thirties. (The texts to read here is Orwell’s Reflections of the Spanish Civil War and the Homage to Catalonia). Alas, a horrible accident kills both this man and the new son — we are to see this accident is also wanted; the man wants out and he takes his son with him.

The devastation to our heroine is for a time crushing — though her behavior manifests the same pragmaticism of approach. Some wandering, and meandering and eventually she does return to Ireland, partly lured there by her son by the first husband. Not forgiven (for what should she be forgiven? is the sense of the text) nor forgiving (they are not sorry for what they are), nonetheless, her older family finds a place for her to live in Ireland.

Meanwhile (I’ve left this part out) her career as an artist has gone on quietly flourishing with paintings recording her sense of Spain and experience. She has lived an authentic life and continues to do so until the book quietly closes and at whatever price she had to pay in others’ refusal to countenance this since they did not.

The reverse is true of the heroine of Brooklyn. Indeed the slightly shocking close shows the heroine returning to Ireland and her originally intended husband because 1) she had promised to, and under the stress of circumstances been pressured into literally marrying the first lover, he having surmised she might just not come back when she sees improved living standards and freedom — he had been her only choice; no jobs anywhere that are fulfilling or money-making for such as someone from her family); and 2) the authority figures in Brooklyn discover she has married elsewhere and threatened to expose her; she knows she will become a pariah because this is the way such people as a group work, so home she goes, leaving then the man who had come to love her in his compromised way (he needs her, she fits in &c&c).

I remember the devastatingly accurate assessment of her relationship with the mother, used and she knows using her. We had been thinking the heroine was better than all these, but she is exposed as just like everyone else. And we are to feel for her, deeply feel for us all in her case.

The heroine in The South escaped all this; hers is the reverse story. But she did for much of her life live hard, in poverty, alone, her beloved man tortured, hounded and escaped through killing herself and she ends in this cottage provided for her, silent again (as the kind of talk in her Irish family is once more irrelevant to anything that matters to her for real).

But the meaning inherent in The South and Brooklyn is the same, the perspective out of which they come and the ultimate message about the obstacles to living an authentic life.

I love candour and hard-truth telling in a book; the unexpected ending exhilarated me. So many falsely easy and happy pseudo-optimistic stories are told; rather than give hope, they irritate and depress me as having the effect of throwing the blame on people who don’t do well. On the the other hand, wanting to think very well of the heroine, Eilis Lacey, when she was in the very final pages of the book obviously willing to overthrow her Brooklyn husband, Tony, and marry the new Irish man, Jim, who owned a pub and was admired by all, in a situation where she saw that instead of being ignored as the useless superfluous second sister, she would get a better job than in NYC (the competition in NYC was too keen for her to rate an office job), I liked her less. I was anxious for her because I thought it would matter to her so much to lose the beloved Tony, but when I was shown how she would give this up, I acceded it was truthful but cared less.

I loved the portrait of the mother who knew or had enough to suspect all along
her daughter had formed new ties in Brooklyn but ignored it, pretended not to
know in order to pressure the girl into lying and staying. But when the girl was
to go because her marriage in Brooklyn was found out, instead of showing affection, the mother shut the door on her. Here we see how people really value one another and what for. Now she can’t get from the girl what she wanted: not just a companion but someone who this pub owner would marry so she the mother would be admired in public.

On the immigrant patterns: I grew up in the south east Bronx mostly, in a slum which at first was heavily Irish but by the time my parents moved out was heavily black. The patterns of Irish life were to me no different than the working class Italian life I saw in Richmond Hill, a neighborhood near the one we moved to. I didn’t dislike them; they seemed to me American catholic working class by the time I was in my teens, only on the surface different from middle to upper middle class Jewish life in Kew Gardens where we did move. The Kew Gardens neighborhood I did hate and had a hard time getting used to: much snobbery, ostentation, and we lived in a 3 bedroom apartment on the ‘low end’ of life there. My name, Ellen, is partly the result of my mother imitating the names she heard around her in the Bronx. (It’s also the name of the mother in Gone with the Wind, which however she denied knowing and said it was just the people around her. I doubt she would have called me Colleen though as my mother was Jewish and that would have been gonig too far.)

Toibin sets the two other novels I’ve read by him partly or wholly in Ennisworthy. It’s where he comes from. And he has a poignant statement about missing it (boyhood memories) in Blackwater Lightship.

The Brooklyn New York parts were truth to life. My mother’s people lived in Brooklyn and for about 2 years (one year when I was small) I lived in Brooklyn and did on occasion visit these relatives growing up. The climate would seem extreme after the British Isles.

I read with an intense anxiety on behalf of Eilis, worried for her as succumbing to pressure. I had to peek ahead to assure myslf she broke away and returned. But when I experienced why and how my feelings for her changed dramatically. But this is a truthful probable portrait. It showed me patterns in my family’s reactions to me I’ve seen repeatedly.

Blackwater Lightship throws yet another permutation and light on this central experience — as does The Master, only then the partial escapee is James. This novel is about a homosexual young man who returns to his family for a weekend just before he died. They had nothing to do with him until then because they didn’t want to know or allow anyone else to know he lived a gay life. We see all their estrangements from one another too.

It’s been criticized for not centering more emphatically on the issue of homosexuality, even marginalizing it. To my mind that Toibin presents Decclan’s sexual orientation, and condition as another important element in the life of the family, not more devastating or central than say the father’s death (Mr Breen) or Lily’s long time adjusting to being alone and her giving her two children to her mother, Dora Devereux while she coped is one of its strengths.

It’s realistic: no false sentiment about family life, but that biological ties are there and for reasons that are hard to explain pragmatically except that people turn to families and families take them in as a matter of survival; there is no alternative to rely on so people come through for one another most of the time. Not all. Homeless people not uncommon. People living away from families and managing to support themselves and find company and worlds with friends happens a good deal.

Still the family pattern is the dominant one whether in a modern country and culture like the US or traditional one like Zimbabwe and India (there we have an arranged marriage and couple who come to live in the US.

Key theme of this and two other of his books, The South and The Heather Blazing (I’ve read about it), and his fictional biography of Henry James called The Master are The key themes, “are the compromises and concessions involved in belonging to a family and in calling somewhere “home”.

The DVD cover of the TV movie adaptation

Three complex female characters: Helen (now married to Hugh O’Doherty), her mother, Lily Breen, and the grandmother, Dora Devereux. All three have similar characters: proud, standoffish, determined with the ability and knowhow of domineering, running a situation, self-contained, self-possessed, but like most people wanting affection, support, and Helen shown as having sensitivities like her older son, Cathal; Manus has mean bullying personality from the get-go, huge ego. You might say it’s about the problem of mothering; by no means does this come more naturally to women than men though the task is forced on them by social arrangements and expectations.

There is no easy reconciliation. The family’s fumbling attempts at change are set against the natural process of erosion that is eating away the coastline close to the family home in Cush. The liminal space of the beach as a setting for the beginning of Helen and Lily’s reconciliation, and the novel ends with the muted triumph of Lily spending the night at Helen’s home after returning the now severely ill Declan to the hospital in Dublin.

It’s a delicately powerful story of a family’s failure to face difficult feelings and their stubborn refusal to admit need (especially the grandmother). He through them delve into memories with a visceral, unsparing depiction: main character through whom we see action is Helen: snapshots of the family’s fraught past are filtered through her memory.

When Helen was 11, she had had to deal with her father’s illness and death virtually alone – she was left with her 8-year-old brother at her grandmother’s house for six months while her mother nursed her father, or tried to. Gradually Helen withdrew from everyone except Declan into a watchful guardedness. She “trained herself to be equal to things, whatever they would be.” But her defenses against the pain of the past are a barrier against present life. She mothered Decclan, came into his room at night the way she does for Cathal and Manus. Helen’s memory of the day before her father’s funeral when she arranged on her parents’ bed a suit of his clothes complete with underwear, tie, socks, hat, and shoes, then lay down beside the father figure she had made.

There is no father figure here; Hugh kept from us; Helen and Decclan’s father died young, we see almost nothing of the grandfather. We have instead Decclan and his two friends, three male characters match three female ones: the strong Paul (a counterpart to Helen) who tells us of his marriage with Francois, and Larry, who has had bitter experiences with his family about his homosexuality and shows us the hypocrisy of the world, but is bright and cheerful in temperament and gets along very well with the grandmother, planning architectural changes to the house we know she’ll never do, and she and he know it, but he does teach her to drive a little a stick-shift car.

The theme is not coming out but coming to terms with oneself. And humour — evolving from camp Larry’s unlikely affinity with the grandmother and from her own sardonic wit–leavens a sombre load. Each has a story:

Larry tells how he came out to his family on the six o’clock news. Paul tells how he and his mate were married by a priest in a traditional Catholic ceremony.

Granny Dora tells how she got the switchblade knife that’s in her apron pocket. Helen’s mother, Lily, who fled into a fast-lane business career and a huge designer house she occupies alone, tells Helen about her father’s last days.

Then we get Declan’s graphic deterioration. The family members and friends do not avoid him

It is about homosexual man regarded as other and I understand the frustration of some gay critics because Decclan is kept at a distance from us: he seems dependent, unable to make a permanent relationship like Paul, acting out as a child to Paul. But there’s revisiting the same theme over and over: Toibin has written novels focusing on a gay man, the one I’ve read is The Master, and Henry James lived away from his family, estranged. Looking at otherness is kept away to some extent

The sense of place, here, is germane and its adjoining strand–close to a disintegrating cliff, caught in the reiterative sweep of the lighthouse–permeate the book with an elemental atmosphere.

Beautiful spare graceful prose: measured and restrained as a Victorian memoir yet poetic in precision-“extraordinary skill for rendering time and place. This quiet novel achieves its effects gradually and with subtlety

The presence of Decclan’s homosexual friends influence the behavior of his family to one another and him as he lays dying in Blackwater Lightship, and we discussed pretty fully of the six main characters, three women, daughter who is now a mother, Helen, mother, Lily, and grandmother, Dora; and we went briefly the three men: Decclan, Paul and Larry.

Decclan is dependent, not strong, looks for help from friends. He has no permanent relationship with a significant other unlike Paul and perhaps Larry. We don’t learn much about his private life for the past years. He is the person in the book dying about whom we learn least. He is kept away from us, except to give us these graphic descriptions of his suffering as perceived by the other characters. Who does he seem to depend upon? Paul.

Paul knows what to do; he finds the emergency room to bring Decclan back to at the end. He is in charge. And he and Helen, as a similarly strong character exchanges stories. Thing is they are not that strong: they need someone depending on them. We see that it’s Helen’s husband Hugh who has the friends, who is the open more giving person, really there, and she needs that. Paul’s partner. What is his story? Francoise who was an only child and needed to be married to have security. Waiting for Paul to return.

Larry, you might call him the comedian, but he’s getting through life that way. Let’s look a little more carefully at the passage where he tells his parents and family he is gay: he gets involved with public politics and finds he appears on the six o’clock news as a gay person, which his family was watching. What is the hard thing? Not the actual event or even the retelling, but the reaction in the room to when he tells of his present love relationships with a nearby family where the men lead overtly heterosexual lives.

The book is named after a lighthouse that no longer exists. Helen and Lily are talking. We don’t learn much about Decclan’s private life nor about him directly; when we learn about Larry’s life it’s indirect and the powerful stuff is about here and now and yet what is not there matters; so too Paul’s relationship with Francoise. About how important memories are and the intangible invisible lives we don’t show publicly shape the public. At the close of the edition I ordered into the bookstore, we have Toibin’s statement about his book: he gains meaning and solace through reliving his memories, and bringing them alive again.

There are eight chapters with some of the stories (memories plus present time) achieving a kind of quiet climax in the 7th, with 1st as prologue, Helen at home, and 8th as the denouement as they prepare to and bring Decclan back to the hospital and Helen brings Lily back to her house. her mother has never been there before. For those working on Blackwater Lightship for this coming journal entry: a series of inset stories or memories embedded into the narrative. People talking with Helen present, Helen and Paul confiding. Then Helen and Decclan’s story from when their father dies We see grandmother and grandfather watching TV and arguing over what they see. Then Larry’s story, Lily’s story, Paul’s story (Toibin a Catholic and has written about Catholicism in travel book on Barcelona central here); Helen’s story (Decclan the spoilt favored child as the boy). Back to Lily’s story; how Blackwater Lightship as a long gone lighthouse is central; Helen’s story again; Helen’s portrait of Lily.

Our cat (Ian) facing forward

The cats — They run away and to the Grandmother this is a bad loss. Cats are affectionate clinging creatures; Lily’s story again; told to Helen, talking of grandmother and past, signals some understanding

Book about the rhythms of the night, and how people cope with death: the Grandmother turns to these mediums who feed people’s desire to reach the dead. A dark theme of redemptive power of death runs through all his books.

The comfort in The Master is James got to live his own life to some extent. He lives as the heroine in The South, only because he has money, property and connections he manages far better than our heroine and ends up with his measure of independence, until of course he’s done in at the end by terrible sickness and death and again finds himself taken over. We see how he lives a life apart, the price of it and the achievement he managed by remaining apart.

I find I don’t have separate notes on The Master, but I do on an essay he wrote for the LRB: The Importance of Aunts. in his usual cagey or elusive way Toibin manages to say what he pretends would be “too crude” to say: especially with respect to James. The problem with Austen’s getting rid of the useless mother (which Toibin does connect to her relationship with her own) is the caricatures she creates are in danger of being taken non-seriously; you can laugh at Lady Betram, which would be to misunderstand or ignore her effect on Fanny Price.

I particularly like how Toibin deals with James’s family: he says how James loved his mother, but in the same breathe, how he kept away from her as it was all too painful to contemplate or let touch (and destroy) him. In Washington Square despite the understatement and careful avoidance of offering the readers ways of not reading what’s in front of them, her heroine has to cope with a loathsome father, a morally idiotic scheming aunt and her own pent-up sexuality. Her nobility comes from her enduring steadfastly being alone in the world. She escapes the fate of Isobel Archer because she knows how to feel and is not to be dissuaded by those around from to violate herself.

She is then a cynosure for James himself.

On Austen’s use of aunts: Austen feels free, on the other hand, to make Lady Catherine de Bourgh both imperious and comic, her wealth and power serving to make her ridiculous and unworthy rather than impressive; but she is not meant merely to amuse us, or to show us an aspect of English society that Austen thought was foolish. She is an aunt who does not prevail; her presence in the book succeeds in making Darcy more individual, less part of any system. Her function is to allow her nephew, who refuses to obey her, a sort of freedom, a way of standing alone that will make him worthy of Elizabeth ….

From the 1983 BBC Mansfield Park: Mrs Norris (Anna Massey) berating Fanny (Sylvestre le Tousel) in front of the whole family

The reader is invited, then, to dislike Mrs Norris for her cruelty and to admire Fanny for her forbearance. Austen’s biographer Claire Tomalin sees Mrs Norris as `one of the great villains of literature’; Tony Tanner thought she was `one of Jane Austen’s most impressive creations and indeed one of the most plausibly odious characters in fiction’. All this is clear, at times rather too clear. What isn’t clear is what the reader should feel about the other aunt, Lady Bertram, mistress of Mansfield Park. Tomalin dislikes her. `Fanny’s experience at Mansfield Park is bitter as no other childhood is in Austen’s work. Her aunt, Lady Bertram, is virtually an imbecile; she may be a comic character, and not ill-tempered, but the effects of her extreme placidity are not comic …

Just one from James: This sexualisation of an aunt figure is what gives the book its power. James radically destabilises the category, moves Madame Merle from being Isabel’s protector, who stands in for her mother without having a mother’s control, to being someone who seeks to damage and defeat her

More generally: The idea of the family as anathema to the novel in the 19th century, or the novel being an enactment of the destruction of the family and the rise of the stylish conscience, or the individual spirit, has more consequences than the replacement of mothers by aunts. As the century went on, novelists had to contemplate the afterlives of Elizabeth and Darcy, Fanny and Edmund, had to deal with the fact that these novels made families out of the very act of breaking them. It was clear that, since something fundamental had already been done to the idea of parents, something would also have to be done to the idea of marriage itself, since marriage was a dilution of the autonomy of the individual protagonist. There is a line that can be drawn between Trollope and George Eliot and Henry James: all three dramatise the same scene, each of them alert to its explosive implications. What they are alert to is the power of the lone, unattached male figure in the novel, someone with considerable sympathy, who moves unpredictably, who keeps his secrets and ego intact …

Photo of Henry James as the master, late in life


Toibin’s greatness also lies in his quiet unassuming style. He gets so much in
and yet does not seem to stretch or have to overwrite at all. It’s part of what makes the novels seem so truthful.

He teaches we must find and live out our own identities at the same time as he compassionates those who do not as the cost can be so high.

From the movie adaptation of Blackwater Lightship

I need to read his Homage to Barcelona next. See the LRB archive for treasures.


Read Full Post »

Woman reading, artist or photographer unknown

Dear friends and readers,

The title may be off-putting, but Corrigan’s book is an inspiriting book to read in the dark near-dawn hours of a spring into summer morning, one intended to keep the reader company in her journeys with others through books. Corrigan writes of reading as intense adventure, as that which can interweave itself into the deepest fibres of our memories of things we do as we do them, what influences, directs, teaches, and comforts the reader who has that within her to be transformed. Corrigan’s tone is at moment luminous with remembered moments of strengthening and hope.

Sometimes the book feels too Pollyanna (people returning from war are presented as all good feeling about their memories), and sometimes Corrigan may grate on your nerves by apologizing to those who wouldn’t read her book in the first place (a sort of bending over backwards to her readers who do worry about what the non-readers of the world would say). These are minor blemishes, though (they do not go on for very long) and are not the core of a book where reading has meant everything to the writer. It’s a book also about Corrigan’s career writing and teaching about her reading to an imagined community of sympathetic readers and her students.

Marilyn Monroe reading Joyce (Eve Arnold photo)

Corrigan vindicates, reads in front of her reader in the way of Bobbie Ann Mason in her The Girl Sleuth, “extreme female-adventure books” and detective stories. “Extreme female-adventure” books are classic women’s books and l’ecriture-femme by another name. Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Villette, Gaskell’s Mary Barton, and (for a modern example) Anna Quindlen’s One True Thing and Black and Blue make visible what the hard adventure of life is for women:

“terrible contests with solitude,” “endurance” of the marriage market and successful socializing. fortitude, “keeping one’s nerves steady, the emotional power of confidence and a thoughtful strong mind, the long nightmare of being linked to a man for life who doesn’t “get you,” who doesn’t begin to understand what means most to you (Kate Simon’s Bronx Primitive).

These are indeed the terrors, the miseries, the small mean hardships of many existences, what withers joy, the enemies of promise.

Such books “got her through” her life, taught Corrigan much — just as Woolf said such books can.

By the time Corrigan gets to the end of her third long section and has told about adopting a Chinese baby girl, her time as a working class young woman at the prestigious and snobbish University of Pennsylvania (so she didn’t have it so bad, did she?), her career as a writer of reviews for the Village Voice and now on NPR, and her long-delayed marriage all the while validating and showing how reading and books have been important in each of her transitions, I felt I was communing with a non-philistine, decently humane presence validating the life of the mind (even if clearly she had been one of the privileged of this world).

The piece de resistance of the book is a long wonderfully refreshing, fascinating and carefully qualified section on Sayers’s Gaudy Night in the context of what women’s communities can be for women, and in vindication of educated women. Corrigan worked at Byrn Mawr. (My goodness.) She dwells on Harriet’s freely entered into relationship with Peter, how he is a knight who rescues her (from death, for she is accused of poisoning her lover-partner in Strong Poison).

Harriet Walter who played Harriet Vane (my gravatar for my Under the Sign of Sylvia blog).

Then onto other women’s books of the 1920s and 30s, more detective fiction by women, memoirs (Lorna Sage’s Bad Blood).

The book’s title is somewhat misleading, for Corrigan also writes it to show the reader that detective fiction by men and women is not simply riveting or terrifying and sad entertainment (when it’s good as in Hound of the Baskervilles, or Hammet’s The Maltese Falcon, Chandler’s The Big Sleep or Susan Hill’s The Various Haunts of Men), but also an indirect means for discussing how it feels to lead a working life where the reader is liberated since the hero or heroine has autonomy, savvy, intelligence, wit. She sees detective fiction as an replacement for the Robinson Crusoe myth (work as seen also in Gaskell’s Mary Barton). The best of them invent communities of people who mirror real milieus of our world and are either therapeutic or worlds split open with all their banal harshnesses and horrors. She convinced me. But then it was 3 in the morning.

Throughout Corrigan brings up analogies with the same ones I so treasured when a girl: Nancy Drew, Little Women, nurse stories (for her it was Sue Barton) and autobiographies (by Agatha Christie including wry comments about how much is made of ten days Christie she fled wife- and motherhood). I wanted to tell her about Bobbie Ann Mason’s Clear Springs and Marge Piercy’s Sleeping with Cats.

Dorothy Lange photo: Girls at Lincoln Bench School, Malheur County Oregon, October 12, 1939

I’ve written before about how important girls books are to them: Girls’ books and women’s lives. The picture by Vanessa Bell (I love the rich reds and yellows) makes visible how good dolls are part of a young girl’s health-giving imaginative terrain. On WWTTA we noticed that although men will often use depictions of women reading to make “come hither fuck-me” pictures of these women for themselves (turning the women’s reading experience into forms of substitute masturbation), women often depict themselves reading in ways that call attention to their class status or inward emotional state, depict themselves as older women reading to children or paint young girls reading.

I’ve not gotten to the last part of Corrigan’s fiction: on what she learned from Catholic martyr stories (Mary Gordon’s Final Payments).

She does talk about the importance of parodies and funny books by women too: her candidate is Austen’s Northanger Abbey; this past Christmas on WWTTA we read Stella Gibbons’ often misrepresented Cold Comfort Farm (she made me want to read Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn), and her favorite poet seems to be Stevie Smith (me too), but enough, it’s nearly 2. It’s pouring, and I had better to bed.

A toute a l’heure, courage mes amies:

The Ballet of the Twelve Dancing Princesses

— by Stevie Smith


The schoolgirls dance on the cold grass
The ballet of the twelve dancing princesses
And the shadows pass

Over their cold feet

Above in the cold summer sky the clouds mass
The icy wind blows across the laurel bushes
The sky is hard blue and gray where a cloud rushes
The sky is icy blue it is like the night blue where a star pushes.

But it is not night
It is daytime on an English lawn.
The scholars dance. The weather is as fresh as dawn.
Dawn and night are the webs of this summer’s day
Dawn and night the tempo of the children’s play.

Who taught the scholars? Who informed the dance?
Who taught them so innocent to advance
So far in a peculiar study? They seem to be in a trance.
It is a trance in which the cold innocent feet pass
To and fro in a hinted meaning over the grass
The meaning is not more ominous and frivolous than the clouds
that mass.

There is nothing to my thought more beautiful at this moment
Than a vision of innocence that is bound to do something
I sense something equivocal beneath the veneer of an innocent
Tale and in the trumpet sound of the icy storm overhead there is
The advance of innocence against a mutation that is irrevocable
Only in the imagination of that issue joined for a split second is
the idea beautiful.


Read Full Post »

Poldark, Margaret (Diana Berriman) and Ross (Poldark, Season 1, Part 2, Episode 1)

Ethel (Amy Nuttal), Mrs Hughes (Phyllis Logan) and Ethel’s baby (Downton Abbey, Season 2, Episode 6)

Dear friends and readers,

For a second time I’ve assigned with read with my classes Winston Graham’s Ross Poldark: A Novel of Cornwall, 1783-178, and it has again gone over very well. We again had what were undoubted two of the best talks I had all term: one was on the treatment of Demelza versus the treatment of Verity which got the whole class discussing these characters, their scenes, issues involved; this and a talk on Ross as hero were done by students with thoroughly marked up copies. The third speaker was just chuffed to find feminist talk/discourse in the 18th century — and “by a woman’ said she amazedly. She found passage by Anna Barbauld’s niece, Lucy Aiken. I did have quotations from both Paine (Rights of Man) and Wollstonecraft (Rights of Woman) ready. A student I fully expected not to show, not only turned up for the talk, but brought a thoroughly marked up book. A second had gone through the mini-series and put on scenes for us to watch and then directed our attention to the book. She didn’t have a real thesis, but her choices were such, it left us much to talk about.

Better yet, or just as important and a real improvements: I’ve integrated the book with the TV mini-series (with Robin Ellis and Angharad Rees). After analysing single books with one-shot films, we moved onto books that are part of series and a mini-series. All term long I set comparative papers, comparative talks, screening features as well as films.

One area we’ve begun to discuss is the long TV mini-series, or the experience and art of watching the serial instalments of a multi-hour story, and I invite my students (and all readers) to read and comment. The following comes from viewing many many mini-series over years (especially my study of the Pallisers), but most recently Poldark, Small Island and Downton Abbey. It’s heavily indebted to Robert C. Allen’s “A Reader-Oriented Poetics of the Soap Opera” found in Marcia Landry’s Imitation of Life, an anthology of film studies. I write this blog to help my students in the last part of our term together.

To study a season-long mini-series, one must take into account three kinds of time: 1) story duration: the days, months, years, depicted in the narrative. Say in Poldark, Episode 1-4 (Ross Poldark more or less); 2) text or film duration: how long it literally takes to watch (how many parts) — so how much of your life has gone by over the course of watching the sequel, and 3) the actual time it takes to read the text or see each film. In TV mini-series the happenings become inter-involved with our lives.

There is not an ending of one story, without the beginning of another and sometimes quite different one —though linked thematically. Further, the first doesn’t really end, but carries on, from a different angle, and the actual central tensions of the part of the story we were intensely engaged in are not resolved or got over, but only deferred into a kind of stasis. Then we have sub-stories which turn up in individual episodes, back-stories (a form of flashback) sometimes self-contained in one episode and sometimes not.

There are stories that are set adrift to be heard of no more, except maybe in passing; there are different sets of interrelated characters, and as the viewer watches for over a year, and his or her life alters, so time moves inside the series and the characters age, some aging, some disappearing altogether, some dying.

Keren (Sheila White) and Mark Daniels (Martin Fisk) in their dark hovel, both will vanish (Season 1, Part 6, Episode 2)

Lady Edith (Laura Carmichael) and Patrick Gordon (Trevor White) as Crawley (), he as alluring poignant revenant will vanish (Downton Abbey, Season 2, Episode 6)

The community is self-perpetuating, self-preserving system; who a character is is as much a function of his or her place in this paradigmatic system as what he or she does over the course of the sequence. Both Poldark and Downton Abbey are unusual in the large number of central characters they have: around 16. Relationships between characters in soap operas are out of kinship, romantic, and social; it’s only political when war or some large public event outside our characters’ horizons. A large community of interrelated characters, yet a limited cast of characters to whom things happen.

The shots of a story move along in a sequence at a leisurely pace; it feels dignified. At the same time, there are no limits to what can happen to a character because future of soap opera is open-ended; they can be killed off and everyone else carries on. There’s also a high degree of redundancy, a reiteration of the story and ideas about the characters; the story must not be moved along too quickly lest it be used up (p. 503) and yet not go too slow. The journey forward is not only deferred, but also halting rather than continuous (p. 509). There is an attenuation of events rather than compression. This is part of the deferred structuring which brings out multi-plot structure: parallel and contrasting stories. The community has interior worlds everyone assumes, is part of, understands.

Central ritual events (often a wedding, can be a dance or ball, a concert, a prayer meeting) occur when we meet all the important characters in one place whose underlying function there is to reassert their place with the others, and the relationship of all of us to the past or present (or future – but that’s crystal ball gazing.

Each individual episode is often artful in itself, with its own climax and particular themes. String a series of these along and you have a horizon of themes, and that derives from a specific book. Say Episodes 1-4 of Poldark have as horizon the world of Ross Poldark (1st Poldark novel), and Episodes 1-5 of Pallisers have as horizon Trollope’s Can You Forgive her?; then Episodes 5-9 have as horizon the themes of Demelza (the 2nd Poldark novel), so episodes 6-11 have as their horizon, Phineas Finn (2nd Palliser book). The last of each usually brings in material from the next book as horizon changes. The action is seen against this new horizon set of themes.

A group of houses, compared and contrasted, say 3-4, against a wide sky but nonetheless single county- or city-side, a landscape.

Cornish countryside, in distance, a speck on horizon is carriage bringing home the revenant Ross, now lamed & scarred — nearly the first shot (Season 1, Part 1 Episode 1)

Northern Landscape, Downton with small figures of Lady Mary (Michelle Dockery) pushing the wheelchair of Matthew (Dan Stevens) — the very first shot.

There are gaps in narratives. Viewers use these gaps in instalment publication to imagine what happened, to fill in. Characters themselves may change a great deal and also have new relationships to one another: so not that character-dominated, an ensemble with a lack of overall narrative closure, complicated and slowly evolving network of character relationships. The consequences of action are therefore more important than any action itself. Some small particular matters: the kind of artistry is often theatrical not dramatic, pictorial, and paradoxically can concentrate on a small emblematic details: Ross pulling a coin from Demelza’s palm so she cannot get herself an abortion, Sarah Obrien putting a cake of soap on the floor of Cora, Lady Grantham’s bath so Cora will slip, fall, miscarry a possible new heir.

See The Pallisers, Poldark, Downton Abbey; aesthetics of soap opera defended.


Read Full Post »

courtesan. n. a prostitute, especially one with wealthy or upper class clients (Oxford Concise Dictionary). n. a woman of the town [courtisane. Fr.] Shakespeare (Johnson’s Dictionary)

Also: from traviare. v. to be lost, wandering, travail, travel, astray (Concise Cambridge Italian Dictionary)

Nightmare parody as dreamt, seen, experienced by Alfredo

Dear friends and readers,

I’ve been writing altogether too frequently about prostitutes lately: from trafficking to The Rise of the English Actress, from arguments about how or whether to help prostitutes to suspect individuals and another night in the life of Roman Polanski, it seems hard to leave the topic.

And now Willy Dekker’s La Traviata at the Met directed with HD camera transmission in mind, featuring Natalie Dessay and Matthew Polenzani (to whom much of the power of the experience is owed), is undoubtedly the most memorable, striking, & contemporary production of an opera I’ve seen since Claus Guth’s Don Giovanni at Salzburg. To speak metaphorically, it seemed at first the La Traviata characters has gotten lost in some minimalist Samuel Beckett play: instead of a tree, we had a clock, instead of a dirt road, a highly uncomfortable couch, instead of a horizon, a bending wall with a overlooking roof.

Dessay in her white slip by the clock, her rich flowered robe fallen and forgotten

But then as I saw this crowd of greedy men grabbing at our heroine, assailing her, tossing her about on stone couches, making her their puppet, I was reminded of Jane Campion’s take on Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady. Isabel Archer was destroyed by this hard devouring and (paradoxically) scornful adulation too.

Dessay thrust above the horde, arms thrusting champagne bottles outward

What is it with Salzburg — as that’s where the Dekker & Guth premiered — what electric current from a core of contemporary brilliance is running through this place? The production has been making the rounds of opera houses since 2005, and everyone apparently “knows” the script is based on partly autobiographical novel by Dumas, La Dame aux Camelias, which has been filmed and retold many times, and this version provides the capable singer with an opportunity to deliver the most moving of performances (see, e.g., The NYTimes and Minnesota Radio).

I just loved the set. Very demanding. You are just out there singing with no distractions beyond what is meaningful.

And I was swept away by Verdi’s music. It rocks, you sway within from it. Exhilarating, mysterious (as a song in this one tells us), thrilling. The music of this part of his oeuvre makes your body move, it’s irresistible the rhythms and harmonies. Two others just the same: Rigoletto. La Forza del Destino.

So what can I add beyond what I’ve already said: If the purpose was to make an unsentimental Traviata, to wrest this cliche from false tears, Dekker and Company managed it by hitting truer emotions. Bold and simple through and through: black-on-white for everyone but Dessay against an often royal blue background:

The nerve was to bring out the underlying realities of the original Dumas by transgressive parody. The traditional ballet became a muscular man naked to the waist, putting on Dessay’s red dress, and cavorting about the stage with all the men, making gross sexual gestures (see above). Where Alfredo once left the stage, now he was there to be teased, bullied, mocked, banged about:

— or was this a nightmare? The last act was just inspired. I was near or in tears, holding them back, stunned with emotion (though often not for the specific situation in front of me but rather the emotions themselves which I’ve felt in other situations). Our heroine was no longer emoting from a bed but walking about dazed, now grief-stricken, mad with depresson, then lit with sudden crazed hope (which hope alerted even the dim Alfredo that she was not going to last), all activity, trying this, demanding that (to go to church, to go out, to be forgiven, with plans for the future), letter in hand:

Polenzani as Alfredo sang exquisitely beautifully and his acting almost as good as Robert Alagna (Don Jose in the Met HD Carmen). He was more subtle than Dessay:

And his voice was stronger and more moving: his arias were like prayers to joy. Jim said that technically Dessay wasn’t up to it: her voice rasped at the end, the middle register was lacking. Well, if so, it made her singing all the more effective at the close, her destruction more believable.

For me the only failure was Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the father; I felt he was stiff, wooden, not acting at all. Jim suggested that he was impassive because he was directed to do that by Willy: he was supposed to be the relentless male, refusing to engage in what was in front of him.

Well, I’ve read the story and the father is supposed to be intensely emotional too — he wants to go to bed with her (maybe he does). But do see the comments below where people felt otherwise and liked Dmitri’s singing and stance, and I agree that making this male a stone figure reinforces the idea of a sweeping dismissal of this woman as a human being who counts. No all that counts is the “pure” daughter for whose advantageous marriage (monetarily, for prestige) Violetta is to be cast away. (Castaway was a Victorian term for prostitute).

A fine production to end a season which included a similarly (humane, sensitive) transformed Faustus (Marina Poplavskaya has played Violetta in other stagings of this production).

Deborah Voight was again our “hostess” (replete with commercials I have to admit) and told the movie-house audience that we could go over to facebook and offer our views or go to Twitter #metfaves & register our favorites for this year. I looked at my blogs & discovered after all I’ve written separate blogs on the HD operas from the Met only 13 times over 3 years (plus 1). It seems more because I write about HD operas from Europe which we’ve seen in movie-houses in DC, and operas we’ve seen at Glimmerglass & Castleton (see operas). So I can’t remember (separate out) what I saw so very accurately even this year but this is what I tweeted (with the 129 characters enlarged a bit for coherence): Luca Pisaroni as Caliban & Leporello. Marina Poplavskaya as Marguerite and Dessayas Violetta and Renee Fleming as Rodelina. Favorite productions: Traviata, Faustus, Enchanted Island, Don Giovanni. Then I came back and added another: Joyce Didonato as Sycorax, Danielle de Niese as Ariel. As will be seen after all I’m not gone on the Wagners, nor those with Nebtrebko. I too (like many people today) find myself drawn to baritones & deeper-voiced males than the tenors and yet except for Simon Keelyside I don’t remember their names. I did like Andreas Scholl, but I had to look up his name and remember him basically as the man who sang Rodelina as the countertenor who partnered my favorite diva Renee Fleming.

I did feel I had participated in a long opera season, including a development of habits (bringing my New York Style Cream Soda, my books), recognitions as when the same people sitting in the same areas of the auditorium over the year. Very satisfying.

We’ve picked out 9 of the 12 for next year that we must see. At $20 a seat, a ten minute drive at most away, it can’t be beat.


Read Full Post »

Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) finding one of the girls fleeing in a wood

I watched this film for the first time last night. It’s an important film which I hope more people saw than I fear did (I suspect it was not a mass entertainment even if it played in mainstream cinemas). It’s a kind of Helen Mirren Prime Suspect film made more realistic and done with ensemble type acting. I’m only a year late (it’s a 2011 film) for a review, and trafficking is as pervasive as ever, plus collusion and downright activity by those who are supposed to stop it themselves doing it.

In her usual gear

Rachel Weisz plays the part of a American (mid-western) police woman who simply will not not do her job; she has real integrity and will not go through the motions pretending in order to collect a salary and remain prestigously within the group. She goes to Bosnia fora career advancement (yes) and also to do good work in an environment where she might be really needed. One night she encounters a group of beaten prostitutes who look terrible and understands that these are trafficked women; one is very sick. She attempts to send the
one to the hospital and the others to safety. She is just one person; while she is taking the group herself to a safe hospice, she cannot be in the hospital; she goes there to discover that the girl cannot be sent home because she lacks papers. Weisz as Kathryn Bolkovac is never for a moment put off by such patent lies. She replies, so what? we’ll get her papers. No we can’t do this, the rules say … She finds herself up against a wall. She returns to the hospice to
discover the girls have been returned to the bar.

Unlike Jane Tennison who then would have to go through a long plot to discover that there are paid kick-backs everywhere (which come to think of it shows her were we thinking realistically to be very dim), Kathryn immediately sees that they were returned by the UN peacekeeping authorities because at least one person, probably more was taking a kick-back. What she has to learn (and without much trouble) is that many are taking bribes, and many of the men who are peacekeepers are the very men buying these women and abusing them under the guns and whips and other hard mean weapons of the women’s keepers.

Madeleine Rees (Vanessa Redgrave)

The plot-design of the story is then three-fold, and is a realistic mirror (reminding me of Five Days where the mirror was a domestic life situation of lower middle class people in the UK). It was not to discover that (in the words of Madeleine Rees, or Vanessa Redgrave, who again has chosen to be in this kind of exposing movie — Coriolanus‘s this), that “those hired “to protect the vulnerable are raping them themselves”, buying and selling them themselves. This is put before us again and again in the evidence, as vignettes, incidents we see as simply obvious.

It’s rather to show us as watchers how formidable is the opposition to putting a stop to the traffic. We see this in each of the groups Kathryn tries to contact.

It is also to show us the realities of Kathryn’s life and how this is part of why she does what she does and how this private life of hers can get in the way or the police life change her private life. And to show us the girls being ruthlessly beaten, humiliated, tortured, and to put before us photos of these girls.

Raya when first seen (Roxana Condurache)

The movie opens with how one specific girl, Raya, was brought into these groups: one night she was out late with a friend, got involved sexually with someone, her friend pressured her to come out after the time she was due home. She went home and got into a quarrel with her mother, and then ran out into the night. That was the end of her life; the next time we see her she’s in a bar and is one of the girls that Kathryn encounters. To make the story effective the movie focuses on one girl’s story.

We see her mother is contacted by Kathryn or representations, how she begs money from her other daughter to go to the hospital. How the other daughter is beaten by her husband and is afraid to give her mother money (it’s not hers). But she does it. How the mother is too late. Then in a later scene we see the mother home again reviling the daughter as a cruel sister for this second daughter’s husband was the man who enabled the boyfriend that night to kidnap Raya.

As in Story 6 of Prime Suspect (“the Last Suspect”), like Helen Mirren, Kathryn has promised to keep the vulnerable girl, here Raya, safe. After Raya is snatched back, we see her dragged before the girls, thrown on a table, & knifed in the back (not killed but just scarred for life) before the other girls to show them what will happen if they try to talk to police or are willing to testify. So like Tennison, who loses first one sister to a brutal killing (and then the other alas), Kathyn is driven to make good on her promise somehow. In a scene near the end of the movie, at last Kathryn reaches one man who will raid the bar &promises not to return the girls. Once there though another group of men rush in, override this man and his crew, and Kathryn seeing Raya begs her in front of everyone to come away with her. Raya is too frightened and refuses. Later that night the same man who led the group in knifing her, takes her before the other girls and simply shoots her through the head.

She has become the lover of one man early in the film and he remains a confidant. We are told in a series of intertitles at the end of the film how all we have seen is real (just souped up for drama), how the real Kathryn now lives with Jan in the Netherlands. Apparently it was not safe to return to the US or Jan, this man’s name, was Dutch and wanted to stay in the Netherlands. A small part of the ammunition against Kathryn (this suggests this kind of loss of reputation does not count as much as women might fear) is her private life. She lives freely and has lovers. Goes to bars herself. But as an upper class (it’s understood in context) white American woman. In one interview a superior tries to needle her about a second story the movie opens with: her ex-husband has custody of her daughter. She was deemed less fit than he; he made more money; he could provide a conventional home with a stay-at-home wife/mother.

Kathryn lives in another state from him and one motive for going to Bosnia was the larger salary which could enable her to move back near her daughter. We see her job get in the way of keeping promises to her daughter to go to this or that occasion. So her story includes separation from her daughter and loss and one motive for her wanting to help Raya is she identifies with Raya’s mother (she says “I keep seeing Raya’s mother”). She also is enacting the mother she did not in US circumstances. This is parallel with Mirren who has had abortions and tries to be a mother where her job and wider usefulness and the life she wanted to lead would not permit her to have a baby, especially without a husband, a kind of relationship Jane did not really want.

The opposition. Those trafficking. Those using the women sexually, brutally. This provides the real action of the film, the hinge-points, the stages of excitement and danger. We see how gradually Kathryn is cut down. She is demoted, She goes to this or that chief officer and realizes very quickly they are protecting their men (and themselves too perhaps). Madeleine Rees (Redgrave) and Peter, another of these very few males who help women stop the trafficking, in effect Rees’s side-kick helper, are frustrated by what happens to Kathryn.

Peter (David Strathairn)

After Kathryn realizes one cannot working within the system (well, duh), and writes an email outside to a high official in a UK embassy, her ID and keys are taken away from her. She is now not just fired, but cannot go into the building to get her files. She must sneak in. She tries to get a woman friend to help her but the woman friend says I’m not you, I won’t risk my job. All do keep telling her it’s not safe, but like Mirren as Tennison, Weisz as Bolkovac seems to lead a charmed life. We might say fairy tale, but in fact Kathryn Bolkavac survived. (Part of the power of this film is it’s a real story transposed into action drama.) Well we see Peter help her.

A crucial turning point occurs as she is walking out of the building with her papers. We see Fred Murray (David Hewlett), aone of the lead man who fired her with Peter and Peter appears to have double-crossed her. She must turn over the bag. But they talk and Murray sneers at her. A few seconds later (scenes are short), Peter comes from behind to give her the bag. He was enabling her to get a tape of this man’s voice as part of her evidence when she returns to the UK.

There we see the interviews on TV with Bill Hynes head UN man (Liam Cunningham) who denies all complicity (as he said he would in another scene). He justifies this in a separate scene as enabling the UN to carry on. But what is it carrying on for? We also are told by him how much money is at stake, how the companies behind much that goes on in Bosnia of a money-making nature are Bosnian, and we know it’s his job.

We then see Kathryn on TV accusing Hynes of lying. The judge does side with Bolkovac (as happened in real life) and we are told (intertitles) all the specific individuals found guilty where deported back to their original countries. But no one was imprisoned, no one punished. And then we are given the huge numbers of people involved in trafficking and enslaved that continues on.

The acting does not bring Rachel Weisz so very centrally to the camera; we do not dwell on her nor on her life interwoven in the same way as Prime Suspect. There are a number of scenes (of Raya’s life, of Raya’s mother’s actions, of the girls’ lives either beaten, or in the bars, or Weisz’s eyes going over the photographs (reminding me of a film by Bergman where Liv Ullmann’s eyes go over photos and a narrative emerges) where Kathryn is not the central point of view.
Most of the time in Prime Suspect, Mirren is. That’s how they keep the plot-design a mystery. But the effect is very good as we feel a real sense of a large world on the screen. Weisz is herself a fierce presence, she has subtlety when needed, is tender, is of a wiry build (so has the requisite thinnness wanted of younger actresses). I feared for
her again and again. So that held me. I cared about her.

A portrait shot of her concerned and talking to another woman

I do like Weisz because of the films she’s in. My students learn a lot from The Constant Gardener; I learned a lot from Agora, neither of whom survived. Agora did exist for real and she survived a bit longer than Tessa, but then she was upper class, attached to upper class men.

I also cared intensely about Raya who is last seen dead, with wounds all over her body, in rags in the wood. Prime Suspect often opened on a scene like this. The wounded murdered corpse of a woman badly dressed.

And about the other girls whose voices, faces, bits of presence emerged now and again.

It’s no coincidence this is a film directed by a woman (Larysa Kondracki), written by a woman (Eilis Kirwan), centrally produced by three women (Amy Kaufman, Christina Piovesan, Celina Ratray). The men in the film every once in a while dismiss the trafficked women as whores. That word is enough. They are now without status.

Thinking about it brought home to me why I found a book like
Nussbaum’s Rival Queens (which I reviewed, and which review I will put online after it’s published) in such bad taste; & what’s wrong with books like Pullen’s Actresses and Whores (which unlike, Nussbaum’s seeks to upgrade the status of whores I will concede (Nussbaum just wants to separate her star actresses from prostitutes). Also those many online sites where feminists who want to stop prostitution are scorned and told they are imposing their prurient values on a profession that makes money and these girls chose and even do well at. Nussbaum, Pullen, and many others who insist on distinguishing courtesans from prostitutes. This so that they can write with admiration and pride about their favorite courtesans (be they actresses, or Renaissance poets, e.g., Veronica Franco, Gaspara Stampa, or today’s high-paid and high-class call girls) are imposing on a huge population, most of whom either are right away or become desperate victims (unless they escape very quickly) the luck of a few in just the way we are told to admire unqualified capitalism because a few succeed spectacularly and the rest clearly didn’t “have” their gifts, energies, strength of character, are inferior in some way, when the reality is the difference between the very few and the rest is where you are born, your class (circumstances, connections). The girls in Bosnia and the third world are like the proletariat in the third world, not fringe hangers-on on the tables of the powerful (the edges) but treated with open raw exploitation, and in the case of prostitution the job is to answer with your body whatever the average man wants of you.

So it’s the difference class makes this film teaches us, how terrible is the violence accepted across the world aimed at women, that it is simply felt by many men women are dispensable and to be used where possible (where class and location allows) like animals and then discarded when inconvenient.

And of course like many of Mirren’s films, the politics of the fable shows us those who are pretending to help the vulnerable (of whatever type) are either in collusion with the murderers & rapists & imperalists or themselves actively central.

The DVD includes a feature where we see Kathryn Bolkovac today, we see a woman involved in trying to stop trafficking, the director, screenplay writer, Weisz and Redgrave talking. Trafficking of women continues to be featured and discussed in many womens’ venues: see Women’s enews. This film has helped allegations against the UN to stop, but has it ended trafficking.

See also cross-cultural collaboration.

I cannot recommend seeing this one too highly and telling everyone you know to see it. Like Mirren’s films, it is entertaining because of the melodrama, excitement and the use of a powerful strong female hero or heroine at its center. I never thought I’d begin to love police-procedural type stories, but I have. I did not like many of the older mystery type novels with heroines at the center when they seemed frivolous and shallow and about retreat and upholding establishment values (Agatha Christie). A new breed of women’s film is among us and it is a re-write of male type films which we may hope males go to see, enjoy, and learn from too.


Read Full Post »

Manon (Anna Netrebko) as fashion plate

Dear friends and readers,

Today’s HD Massenet’s Manon was a disappointment. This is an opera adapted from one of the great 18th century novellas, Prevost’s Manon Lescaut (an inset historical tale in Mémoires et aventures d’un homme de qualité). It’s a brief story of two passionate lovers who refuse to be coopted by the established order of the time, which decree (as the novella opens), her a prostitute, fodder for prison gangs, and him a priest, fodder for his family’s position. In an impulse, they flee to try to make a life together and fail for lack of funds and anyone to help them; he turns to unscrupulous gambling and she to supporting them by luring lover-protectors. Abducted by his father (lettres de cachet operative), he is for a time forced into the priesthood, but rebels, turns back to her, and we watch them gradually degenerate until now amoral crooks (the novel parallels Defoe’s Moll Flanders which it’s contemporary with) they must flee the police and end up in an imagined desert in Louisiana where she dies in his arms. An analogous point of view (“I will not serve”) is found in the mid-century equally passionate-subversive Sorrows of Werther by Goethe (also adapted into an opera by Massenet) and in the 20th century has been successfully imposed on Mozart’s Don Giovanni (see Claus Guth: “taking refuge in the pastoral”). When staged and performed to dramatize this core spirit, it is an ironic tragic release: and this is how it was done for HD transmission in the Gran Teatre del Liceu at Barcelona, as a Roman noir, with Natalie Dessay and Rolando Villazon as Manon and her Chevalier.

The staging, implied motivations, costumes and gestures we saw today turned this opera into a series of mostly fatuous and/or improbable manic scenes whose explanatory connections occurring over periods of time were presumably off-stage. About 2/3s of the opera was meant to be done (we were told in the intermission) in a “light-hearted” way: so we begin with a jokey opening in which we watch two young people fall hopelessly unbelievably sentimentally in love at first sight (and thus flee without their suitcases):

Des Grieux (Piotr Beczala) and his teenage Manon (Anna Netrebko),

Curtain closes and then opens on a scene of the two of them in some never-never land on a rigged platform with bed, door, and a small table (so as to visualize a famous line in an aria) in which she betrays him with little trouble for her cousin’s friend on the assumption that this way she will live in luxury and be adored (by rows of men). Intermission and then we are “treated” to an Easter parade of women dressed in lovely belle-like outfits and hoards of men in tuxes whose foscus was an ostentatiously expensive dress and hat for Netrebko (see above). Not happy apparently (suddenly) when told that Des Grieux may now be found at St Sulpice, the curtain goes down and a few minutes later comes up on rows of pews, a pillar and alter (chorus of women in black) where she, Satan-like (she slithers on the floor at one point), seduces the now religiously devout Grieux into bed with her. This end on rare visually startling moment where they clutch one another in a pose of tight fucking on a conveniently nearby bed (behind the pillar).

The shaping idea of this production was young people just want to have fun.

There was some intelligent feeling and moving singing by Beczala in the scene on the platform as he appears to have read and taken seriously the words of his aria wistfully longing for some meaningful loving relationship in a haven far away. The parade did include a ballet by woman dancers which (inconsistently) ended with individual abonnés (upper class males in tuxes who in the 1890s hung around the Paris Opera, pressuring girls to succumb to their desire for sex by paying them) literally forcing the struggling ballerinas off the stage to their lairs. Perhaps this was the most moving sequence in the whole 4 hours. Otherwise except for the sexual clutch, it was everyone going through conventional comic and pathetic routines.

Until the last third of the opera that is. Then we swung us into the melodrama begun in the St Sulpice scene, with a simplified lurid gambling den set before us in which Manon now pressures Des Grieux into gambling because she (he is told) will not live with him unless he is rich. As in her St Sulpice scene she is trussed up into a gown which highlights (outlines) her breasts and hips, this time the lurid color is fuschia:

(I’ve chosen a less revealing pose than the one the posters for this opera have made ubiquitous on ads)

Des Grieux is accused of cheating (which of course he’d never dream of in this production) and she (for reasons which remain unexplained) taken away by the police. The last scene of all is her in a tramp’s shirt and long jacket which seem torn left-overs from a Waiting for Godot production. She is dumped by gendarmes on a vast floor and dies in Des Grieux’s arms. (He has been standing about waiting for her – waiting you see.) Her face was at long last not so clownish with lipstick that went beyond her lips. Backstage in the intermission Netrebko lamented that she had to wear this least of her outfits when she went our for applause.

The lesson of his opera is be sure and attach yourself to someone with a permanent income? Maybe it was a fashion show in disguise, except for that (according to Nebtrebko) lamentable final outfit?

Not exactly what Prevost had in mind, nor even Massenet — though recently a Eurotrash version, did it this way to make fun of, or send up the opera. I admit I don’t know what Massenet had in mind but since he was also attracted to Werther (a puzzled NPR reviewer) maybe he did have some sense of the subversion of these two 18th century novels.

I am glad I wrote a review of the earlier Dessay-Villazon pairing (Samuel Ramey was Grieux’s father) because at first I was blaming Anna Netrebko as dull: I have found in other operas that she leaves me cold as she did here. I found myself moved by her in Anna Bolena only at the close of the opera where it was really the long experience itself that got to me. Jim thinks beyond her suave voice, she is liked because she is young and smooth-skinned and round. She does have dignity. This time though it was not her fault the opera was ho hum. Piotr Beczala’s moving singing was appreciated by the audience which stood up for him and applauded very loudly every time he came forward. But one swallow does not a summer make. Or even a couple. A few other people sang well and gave the piece some emotional or ironically comic resonance.

Izzy seemed bored when I asked her how she felt about the opera, and Jim kept saying well, “this is the level of a Massenet opera. You must not expect depth.” While I’m tempted to say that this is an opera for the year 2012, where many dramas seem intent on dramatizing how the 99% sits in worship of the 1%, I suspect this production is rather a casualty of the determination of the Met management to reach the widest possible common denominator audience. Two years ago Paul Gelb (now the man in charge of the Met who had the idea of making huge sums and gaining a new audience by HD broadcasts) seemed enamored of making the Met resemble Broadway productions. This year Gelb has opted for “traditional” stagings gussied up by huge expenditures (as in the machine for Wagner’s Ring). This time he went too far, too mindlessly. The production and costumes were both by Laurent Pelly and the directing for HD Gary Halvorson (whose name appears as HD director for most of these operas and yet is never interviewed). We did notice the theater was not as crowded as we have seen it, so despite the usual hype reviews, word had possibly got out that this was an opera you could skip.

Read Prevost’s book instead. It’s not very long. In French it’s a poetic gem in prose.


Read Full Post »

March daffodils to the side of my house (close up)

Dear friends and readers,

Yesterday I had to expend a goodly sum to a group of workers (acting with alacrity to obey their boss), the man who owns Residential Lawn Management, to cut my grass, ground down the hedge in front of my house, hand-cut my new flower bed (which unfortunately I had not thought through so didn’t realize I had to set aside an area they didn’t just mow through), cut down and take away a tree in the back of my garden-yard which had been growing upside down (!). First I phoned him twice (landline and cell phone), half an hour later they arrive; I try to re-tell them the message, they listen patiently and then go about the business after themselves phoning the boss.

They did it with good humor and very well — especially considering they don’t understand English very well and my Vietnamese is non-existent.

So this morning I was drawn to a story by Alex Ulam in the Nation (entitled “Foreclosures” and this exhibit), which I found reprinted and slightly revamped here, How to Rehouse the American Dream, about a new unusual exhibit in the Modern of Modern Art, which exposes how the way Americans end up in car-dependent houses in the suburbs (and lawns of grass to have to cope with) is the result of right-wing polemics as well as control of public media and dreams. Really worth reading about and looking at. I can’t send you to Ulam as one needs to be an online subscriber (I’m only paper subscriber and the Nation is not generous this way), but I can to the exhibit itself:

Rehousing the American Dream

Jim and I also have car troubles, large car bills. Luckily we do live in a city-like suburb with strong pro-social attitudes, Alexandria City, where we don’t have to drive miles and miles to get anywhere that’s fun and interesting and has other like-minded friendly people.

My nearly 20 year old chariot

See Surroundings. The truth for me is I love my unpretentious house set in a series of quiet green-laden streets. Sitting in my screened porch this afternoon, I remember how for nearly 30 years I’ve lived here as I look out at the familiar trees, flowering bushes, houses, streets. But the point I make here is there should and could be an alternative within the reach of a majority of people’s incomes and place.


Read Full Post »

Older Posts »